25 October 2011

Shakespeare vs Anonymous

With the imminent release of the movie "Anonymous",  many people- well, one- are asking me two questions: Is there anything to the claim that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare? and Are you going to see the movie?

The answers to these two questions are no, and no. 

As for the second question, by way of explanation I offer the plot outline as taken from Wikipedia:

It dramatizes a fringe theory, unsupported by any historical evidence, [3][4][5] according to which the works of Shakespeare were written by an Elizabethan aristocrat, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. de Vere, depicted as a literary prodigy in childhood, is Queen Elizabeth's illegitimate child. His poetic genius seduces his mother when he is a young man, and they become lovers. But his works are never published, since de Vere is hostage to the censorship of powerful court bureaucrats. When, towards the end of her reign, rival lobbies clash over the issue of her successor, de Vere finds a way to stage his censored plays in order to support Essex, one of the contenders. Emmerich has Shakespeare, depicted as an alcoholic bit player, become Oxford’s secret frontman. The 'truth', that the aristocratic de Vere, not the Stratford hick, is the real author of the Shakespearean canon, is lost to the world, creating what Oxfordians consider to be history’s greatest literary scam.[6]
To quote English speaking teenagers everywhere:  Seriously?  Unsupported by any historical evidence, indeed.  Let's take a brief look at the other question, and say exactly why this movie, as far as this outline goes, does not rise to the level of bovine scatology.

First, the brief facts.  Plays in that era were censored, and had to be cleared by the Office of the Revels If the play was to be printed, which was rare for the company to do itself but common in the case what we would call "bootleg editions" it was listed on the stationers register.  We also have the diary of Henslowe, and other writers who speak of the plays of Shakespeare.  Altogether the evidence can give us a good idea of when the plays were first performed. According to my Riverside Shakespeare, Shakespeare's plays begin in  1589-90 with the first part of Henry VI, and end with The Two Noble Kinsman, (printed as a collaboration with John Fletcher) in 1613. Fletcher, for those who have not heard of him,  is a writer who was once considered among the greats (Dryden lists the three great playwrights of England as Fletcher, Jonson and Shakespeare) who is now largely and unfortunately forgotten.  Fletcher was the dramatist who took over as the principle writer for the King's Men acting troupe after... let us say "someone"... left. I'll get back to that in a moment.

This dating of the plays poses a problem for the claim that Oxford wrote the plays of Shakespeare, because Oxford died in 1604.  The Oxfordians must therefore claim that the King's Men must have sat on more than a dozen plays for nine years following his death.  There is a problem with that, and it brings us back to Fletcher, or rather, his position as playwright for the King's Men.

Most of the major acting troupes of the period had an offical writer, whose job it was to crank out plays.  The playgoers of the period, as they do now, craved novelty, and the demand for plays enormous.  Playhouses and their troupes were fiercely competetive in producing the plays quickly.  What all this means is that it is unlikely, given the fierce competition, that a playhouse would simply sit on a body of plays for nine years.  It goes completely against the mindset of the time.

Another way of considering the authorship of the plays begins with one of the few manuscripts extant from the period: the play Thomas More. The manuscript is made up of seeral loose pages, several of which appear to have been removed and replaced.  The replacement pages are written in several different hands. The history of the manuscript and the different hands has been pieced together thusly: The play was written for one company, but over time the company changed, and new parts had to be written in or adapted to meet the needs and the abilities of the new members and the new company. In short, the play was written and then re written for specific actors. It is this point that I wish to address. But before I do, let me say the Thomas More manuscript has been under intense scrutiny of late, because one of the sets of handwriting in on of the adapted scenes bears a very strong resemblance to the handwriting found in the six most famous signatures in the world: Shakespeare's. Some of the people who claim Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare claim the signatures were written by law clerks, thus proving Shakespeare was illiterate and could not possibly have written Shakespeare. They have not explained what a law clerk was doing writing amendments to Thomas More.  Let us call it a coincidence for the moment.

Going back to the issue of the relationship between plays and actors, we find that the plays written under the name of Shakespeare share a close relationship to the actors in the company. First and foremost, the best known and greatest actor in the troupe was Richard Burbage. He was regarded as one of the greatest actors of the age. He appears to have been, to put it mildly, a ham. Of all the plays extant from the period, those which may be regarded as what we today call a 'star vehicle', those plays which are dominated by one roll, and by dominated I mean the plays have one roll of five hundred lines or more, over ninety per cent of those star rolls can be tied to one of two actors, Richard Burbage, and Ned Allen. The implication is that these rolls were written for these actors.

As a further indication of how these rolls were tied to the actors, we can see in the plays of 'Shakespeare', as they are currently dated, a progression in the age of the main character. Is this because the writer was getting old, and thus more sympathetic to and concerned with the issues of age? Or is it because the lead actor is getting older, and can no longer play Romeo, but instead must needs play a Lear or Prospero instead?

There is also the question of Shakespeare's clown characters. They often seem to fall into one of two categories: Rather morose, and rather wise fools. Does the difference follow some dramatic need, or a change in the troupes, with an actor who specializes in one form of comedy being replaced by someone who specializes in another? Critic Edward Malone has claimed that the arrival of John Heminges, an actor who specialized in playing fat, funny drunks, to Burbage's troupe lead to the creation of one of the plays' most memorable figures: Sir John Falstaff. As evidence that an actor who specialized in playing the popular fat drunks continued with the troupe, another very similar roll, Sir Toby Belch, appears in Twelfth Night.

We have before us what seems to me a difficult question: What part did the actors take in writing their own rolls? In all honesty, I cannot answer that question. I can tell you that John Heminges did play for other troupes, but only one had an author who created Sir John Falstaff. I can say other writers wrote for Burbage, but none of them created a Hamlet. At the very least we have a gifted writer who has close ties to the troupe, who knows their strengths and their weaknesses thoroughly.

The writer(s) also know the playhouse. The stage directions, while few, were geared towards the Globe Theatre where these plays were originally performed. The writer also knew the stage well and tailored his plays to work within its strengths and weaknesses.

This movie, along with books and articles all argue that Shakespeare could not possibly have written Shakespeare.  Some people, as well as the movie, believe the plays could not have been written by some boring, backwoods country hick like the man from Stratford, and believe it must have been written by a daring, dashing, exciting, (and, according to the movie, incestuous) nobleman, and Oxford seems the most likely, despite the problem with dates.  If I am correct in my belief that the writer of the plays must have known the actors and worked intimately with the actors, then I would have to say that a noble author seems unlikely to me. Players in the period were considered to be servants and vagabonds. It is unlikely a nobleman would have worked as closely and for as long as these plays would have required. He would have considered it beneath him, and could have caused a scandal for working so closely with another man's servants, as the players were.  It is very unlikely that he would have tailored the roles of his plays to suit the vanity of the actors.

The alternative to this is that the writer was someone within the troupe itself, as most troupes did have a writer on hand.  The familiarity the author fo the plays shows for his company and his theatre indicate strongly, in my opinion, someone who was connected to the theatre and the actors, with the possibility of the actors adding and embellishing their rolls. Do we have any evidence that there was someone in the Lord Chamberlain's Men, later the King's Men, who wrote? As it turns out, we do.  He is mentioned frequently in the Stationers register, and by his fellow playwrights.

He went by the name of 'Shakespeare'.

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